Detroit’s Black Milk has been a powerhouse in terms of musical output over the past four years. The man has put out six albums with his name on it, including his latest release right here: If There’s A Hell Below, a tip of a hat to a similarly named song by Curtis Mayfield. He’s also handled production for a number of artists including Rapper Big Pooh, Skyzoo and others. One could expect an artist with such a large catalog of releases to make music that is blurred together by similar themes. So many releases could result in music being stagnant from too many ideas coming together all at once and being released in volumes. Yet with If There’s A Hell Below (as well as subsequent releases), Black Milk usually finds a way to incorporate his definitive sound and style into the album while being adventurous enough to create an expanding range of musical creations, making his art some of the most exemplary hip-hop this decade so far.
Black Milk has always been known for his drums: gritty, thick and delivered with a punch, but also incorporated with more dynamic, glitchy, electronica sounds that alter the energy and delivery into something more abstract. Both of those types of drums are heard throughout the duration of If There’s A Hell Below, but don’t expect to hear a few verses over beat type “A” and a few verses over beat type “B.” Instead, Black Milk switches up the drums, the samples or the beat entirely on nearly every track on the second half of the album (see “Story and Her” and “Scum”). These switch ups do wonders for the tracks as the dynamics change, the energies are shifted and the overall breadth of the songs are modified to bear a more developed quality. Yet, there’s never a moment where it’s hard to recognize the sound to be that of Black Milk himself (i.e. he didn’t go too far in experimentation).
With the suggestive, (slightly) macabre title and album cover, listeners could expect the album to inherit a congruent theme musically; they would be right to assume so. If There’s A Hell Below finds Black Milk loosely carrying on the trends first heard on last year’s No Poison, No Paradise. While I applaud 2010’s Album of the Year, 2013’s No Poison, No Paradise lent itself to have a low-replay value due to its heavy conceptual theme. I find this album to meet in the middle of these aforementioned records in terms of production, lyricism and overall replay value.
We hear a more aggressive energy vocalized through Black Milk’s densely packed verses and substantial subject matter on this project. The album’s opener “Everyday Was” beholds an epic baseline and horn sample that gives stability to Black Milk’s relatively quick-paced verses that detail a troubled upbringing in Detroit. This stand-out track gets the mood set to one that is more dusky, a quality that carries on throughout the album.
Most of the subject matter is very personal. Themes of uneasy situations in Detroit, his extensive hip-hop career, relationships and personal ambitions all seep their way through the emcee’s words. The concept of hell comes through strongly by way of specific lines, but is most accurately described on the album’s closer “Up And Out”:
“You’ve seen hell before/
My n***** already lived it/
If there’s a hell below/
Then we already in it.”
A variety of subject matters are scarcely left untouched with lines referencing his Aunt’s drug addiction, his absentmindedness in school, and even the constant comparisons to his “hero,” the late J Dilla. This is an interesting point in the album (towards the end) as he raps with fervor about his come-up in hip-hop over brash drums on “All Mighty,” rhyming:
“Just lyrics with pen and pad/
A beat that played in the back-/
ground, back when they said that you had that-/
Sound, in your instrumentals and/
Still won’t let you live out the shadow of your hero.”
Black Milk has transcended the label of just producer and just rapper, being that he now has a separate music venture through Computer Ugly. Even more, Black Milk is no longer that boom-bap beatsmith from Detroit that could spit, too; granted, he hasn’t been for years (arguably since Tronic), but with every new project we hear from him, his endurance as an artist grows and his place in hip-hop moves from formidable act to legendary musician. We hear his best on tracks like the retrospective “What It’s Worth,” the dank and club-worthy “Detroit’s New Dance Show,” the soulful “Gold Piece” and the others mentioned above. Over a decade in the game and Black Milk still has the hunger of an artist ready to take on the world with captivating, innovative musical creations, and he harnessed that drive and passion yet again by creating If There’s A Hell Below.
1) Everyday Was (feat. Mel)
2) What It’s Worth
3) Leave The Bones Behind (feat. Blu & Ab)
4) Quarter Water (feat. Pete Rock)
5) Hell Below (feat. Gene Obey)
6) Detroit’s New Dance Show
7) Story and Her
8) All Mighty
9) Scum (feat. Random Axe)
10) Gold Piece (feat. Bun B)
11) Grey For Summer
12) Up & Out